THE NEW PLACE

and it's association with Claire Van Zant

Robin Johnson is a Twin Cities actress/director who has acted at the Guthrie Theater, Theatre in the Round, Starting Gate Productions, Commedia Beauregard and Creative Time of New York. She has also done voice work for National Public Radio, Prairie Home Productions and the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. She has been seen acting on the stages of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, Mixed Blood Theater, The Fitzgerald Theatre and the Walker Arts Center. Johnson was named Best Twin Cities Actress of the Year by Lavender Magazine for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I in the area premiere of Timothy Findley's Elizabeth Rex. She is also the founder of The New Place.

Claire Van Zant and Robin Johnson

My earliest memory of Claire Van Zant was as one of my father's colleagues at Mayo High School. I knew her as the teacher who'd been born in the UK, acted more British than the queen and who was extremely intimidating. The first time I saw "Lady Claire" (a nickname either coined by or simply preferred by my dad) was a Mayo open house that I was allowed to attend when I was still a pre-teen. She scared the heck out of me.

My sister's experience taking Claire's Humanities classes taught me that I would be a complete fool not to follow her into them. Outside of my father, Claire became the single most influential educator of my life and her classes still resonate and inspire me today.

My real interest in "CVZ" (the nickname she despised but that was favored by her students) was personal. I wanted to know the person underneath the aristocracy and the manners and role-playing. Her health was not good by the time I took her classes. I remember sitting in her office, listening to her fears and frustrations about the seemingly endless number of discomforts and complications.

My ego would like to believe she saw and appreciated my attempts. She allowed me to crack the surface anyway. I was invited to her home, had a few lunches with her and endured an accidental and surreal encounter with her and her husband in the men's' department of Dayton's department store. (I rounded a corner to find her on her knees industriously digging though stockpiles of men's briefs, looking for just the right pair for Bob. She didn't miss a beat or stop what she was doing. I couldn't bear to look at Bob; I have no idea how the poor man reacted.)

Claire Van Zant in 1968

I was never a friend, of course. Even years into adulthood, the teacher-student dynamic remained. But I guess she gathered me under her wing. On the back of an old yearbook photo, she wrote the note that I cherish.

My final communication from her involved my self-produced production of Timothy Findley's Elizabeth Rex, a play that featured a highly fictionalized account of a night in Queen Elizabeth I's life. I sent her the script and she sent me back a three-page, single-spaced, immaculately hand-written, infinitely well-bred dressing down, telling me in no uncertain terms that the premise of the play was a non-starter. After two and a half pages of reproach and English history, she added "all this being said, I hope the play succeeds". Priceless!

You had to know Mrs. Van Zant to know that the unbraiding was wrapped with genuine love and patience (and more than a little ego.) Her prickly Royalist bravado had to have its say but, in the end, she showed her love and care.) Looking back, I wish I'd done a better job describing the play's larger themes to her. She may still have bristled at the liberties a Canadian took with her country's icon, but her deeply rooted liberal humanist half would have applauded the intent.

She never knew that I was given a Best Actress award or that the show was widely regarded as a success. I didn't contact her after that and I am plagued by worry that she felt I was offended. I wasn't in the least. The best explanation for my distance had nothing to do with the letter but rather that years were passing and I was terrified of seeing her depleted. I couldn't bare to see her being anything but Lady Claire. I was a coward and I wish I had it to do over again.

If we do get to see the people of our lives again, Claire will be one of the first I look for. ♥

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